rice cake soup for Seollal holiday feature

The Enemy Is Within Our Ranks

in Identity by

Two narratives generally dominate the portrayal of South Korea’s most important holidays, Chuseok (the Autumn Harvest) and Seollal (the Lunar New Year), which was just last week. There’s the happy narrative: Extended families get together to celebrate over traditional home-cooked Korean dishes; smiling celebrities in hanbok promote the holidays on television. And on the other side, the unhappy narrative emphasizes the conservative gender dynamic: women in the kitchen against men who laze around the TV.

The happy narrative is an easily debunked idealization, and the emphasis on gender inequality means well. But there’s more to the story. Last year, writer Ahn Yun shared a more nuanced take on the holidays in an essay for a feminist website. She had gotten a phone call from her mother in advance of the big Chuseok dinner, asking Ahn to come earlier and help her prepare the rice-cakes. “She says that mine has the prettiest shape,” Ahn recounted her mother’s request, “as if she had a chance to look at other rice-cakes, those imaginary ones that my brother or father have never bothered to make.”

In her telling of the story, Ahn is surprisingly more conflicted in her portrayal of her mother than that of her brother; it is not difficult to see that he is simply the moral expendable of the story. After the holiday dinner, Ahn described how his brother had dropped by the kitchen, asking Ahn and her mother whether he could “help out” with the dishes. Her frustration reached its peak when her mother, delighted at his generosity, handed over her kitchen gloves “without forgetting to mention ‘how good it is to have a son.’”

From what I read in the outpouring of news articles around major holidays, South Korean media likes to focus on the perceived tension between men and women as a quick explanation for all that ails family gatherings. In a recent research, as reported by The Korea Herald, Prof. Kim Jong-Sung and his team at Chungnam National University Hospital coded their survey result of 562 married South Korean men and women and came up with a “holiday stress index.” The team’s survey targets are gender-divided, with Kim’s report emphasizing the high index for women (32.4) in contrast to that of men (25.9). For last year’s holiday special, JTBC’s popular talk show program “Non-Summit” debated the case of a couple who faces a marriage crisis on every major South Korean holiday. Once again, the dominant narrative of holidays is gender war.

Both the quantitative comparison of holiday stress levels and the qualitative data made up of confessional anecdotes are meant to lift the curtain on the “cheerful” holidays and spotlight the tug of war between men and women.

Granted, many South Korean women I know are forced to go through intense political and psychological strategizing in preparation of the holiday seasons. They share Ahn’s discontent and would like to openly protest the patriarchal customs these large-scale family gatherings entail, with women sweating away in the kitchen and men and children sitting around the TV set for holiday specials. That, however, is not the end.

As Ahn reveals, holiday stress in South Korea involves disagreement among women of different generations. It comes down to the fact that women themselves are complicating the fight against patriarchy by complying with the conventional notion of womanhood.

A case in point: In its Sep. 2014 issue, magazine Living Sense, which caters to South Korean women in their 20s to 40s, published short holiday anecdotes contributed by its readers. Over half of its stories dealt with the atmosphere of collective indifference women face at extended family gatherings, rather than grievances specifically against husbands or “men.”

It is in fact fellow women — especially mothers — who also make it difficult for the younger generation to stage an open confrontation. Ahn only hesitantly touches upon this problem in her article, but it nevertheless looms large in her concluding remarks to the Chuseok episode: “Why is domestic labor a favor for some [men] and an obligation for others [women]? And why does my mother find this favor so gratifying?”

In South Korea, the struggle for a more gender-equal holiday culture often ends up facing challenges from the single family member whose intensity of holiday labor meets no rival, i.e., one’s own mother. A daughter may refuse to clean up the dishes, or plead at least collective responsibility, asking others (the “men”) to join in. All too quickly a mother or an aunt would intervene to remark that it is not a big deal. She would take care of it.

The public as a whole is poor in recognizing this uneasy relation between mother and daughter. An article announcing post-Seollal promotions informs us that Sheraton Seoul D Cube City Hotel has just issued “Mother-Daughter Spa-day Gift Certificates,” available throughout this month. It reminds me of the “Mother-and-daughter photography contest” held by the Hyundai department store last year — an event that, according to Financial News, was being held on behalf of “all mothers and daughters struggling with post-Chuseok exhaustion.” In such advertisements, both mother and daughter are lumped into the single category of women: victims of high seasonal demands, whose stress and sacrifice must either be commercially exploited or compensated for.

But the two are not always on the same team. As long as the mother insists on her place in the kitchen, and is content with the gratification of her own sacrifice, the daughter is suspended in an ideological limbo. I have seen many young women, drawn by their sensitivity and sympathy toward older female family members, end up scurrying into the kitchen at holiday gatherings despite their own political commitments. “At first, I felt bad for the mothers,” an anonymous South Korean commented on the internet news site Media Today, “but then I realized that mothers too were perpetuating that structure.”  

The issue of domestic inequality in South Korean society often culminates in such highly tension-ridden and complicated anxieties on the part of the daughter. On the one hand, she recognizes her mother as performing one of the most under-appreciated feats of South Korea’s social, political, and economic reality: domestic labor. And yet the daughter is conflicted, because she does not want to buttress the Victorian vision of holy motherhood that passes for the norm in South Korea — selfless, submissive and domestic — nor does she want that burden to be passed down to the next generation of women.

So how does one defend her ground without insulting or compromising the decades-long sacrifice of her loved ones?

There may be no easy answer. I am reminded of a talk I had with my twenty-five-year-old acquaintance a couple of years back around Seollal, at a coffee shop, where she was contemplating how to face the moral and political dilemma she faces on every major South Korean holiday. How will she prove to other family members that domestic labor is something to be shared and not to be delegated to women, that her mother is not just a mother, but a worker (who shouldn’t be expected to toil away an unlimited number of hours)?

“And how,” she added, “do I convince my own mother to see that she shouldn’t be stuck in the kitchen all day? Or do I even have the right to try to convince her in the first place?”

The battle for gender equality is hard enough when it is fought against men. It is even harder when the enemy is within your ranks, at your own home.

Cover Image: Rice cake soup, one of many dishes South Korean women toil away in the kitchen to make for the Lunar New Year. (Source: Pixabay)

Yun Ha Kim is currently pursuing her graduate studies in Chicago.

29 Comments

  1. Let’s talk gender equality in South Korean when the women have to serve for 18 months in the military and get their feet blown away by a North Korean mine while patrolling the DMZ.

  2. Protip: Just hire a maid and order takeaway side dishes already. Now you can bitch & moan without using food preparation, the holidays, and “lazy men” as an excuse for your chronic unhappiness. End of the “patriarchy problem” and problem solved!

    • Robert,

      Well, there’s the ‘de jure’ perspective, which answers your question literally: yes, the men running the military probably don’t want women in combat positions.

      There’s also the practical reality that if 2 million hardened North Korean soldiers started pouring across the DMZ, female soldiers really can’t hold the line. Women aren’t as effective combat soldiers as men. Period. The average woman is slower and weaker than the average man.

      Finally, I have a suspicion the vast majority of South Korean young women would prefer to spend their late teens and early 20s shopping, partying, drinking, dating and “studying” at universities and pursuing their oh-so-important careers than slogging in the mud and shooting rifles.

  3. David, your “suspicion” that young woman would rather be doing things that any 20 year old would want to be doing, regardless of gender, is obvious. The fact remains that, for reasons you seem unwilling to explore, woman have not been forced to do military service the same way men have. This is through no fault of their own. Woman are capable of serving in all kinds of roles in the military, and some are more than capable of serving in combat positions. Until they are obligated to do so, it seems to me that it is enormously unfair of you to characterise all young Korean woman as superficial and selfish, when clearly, if given a choice, most young Korean men would forego military service for exactly the same reasons.

    • AMD, every military is largely bureaucratic (10 people in the rear for every soldier up front, etc) and yes, women perform quite well in bureaucratic roles. But sorry, combat isn’t like a Hollywood action movie where the plucky heroine drop kicks a room full of bad guys. Combat isn’t about sitting in a control room 4000 miles away and pressing a button to blow away a bad guy. Combat isn’t about “Hey you go girl, you can do whatever a man can and probably even better!” Combat is about humping for days with a 80lb pack in a malarial jungle, living in a foxhole for months without bathing with 20 other guys. Combat is about the very real possibility of encountering an enemy face-to-face in a life or death struggle, of wrestling him to the ground and bashing his head open with a rock.

      And, even if you can find that “exception to the rule” super girl who can out bench press any guy and out shoot any guy, there’s something called “unit cohesion” that is found only in all-male groups, the so-called “band of brothers.” It is the camaraderie and true loyalty forged through men going through adversity together: Greek phalanxes, platoons, men on sailing ships, sports teams. Hint: if you’re a girl and find locker room talk “offensive” or “sexist” or “demeaning” you probably don’t “get it.”

      I’m sure men don’t want to serve in the military either but that’s the point. They HAVE to. Even in societies without a draft, the unspoken expectation of all young men is they’re expendable and will be sacrificed for the sake of the greater good.

      Gender inequality, much?

      • Hey David Kim, how many women are in the Korean military now?
        Also, have you heard of the female Yazidis who are enlisted in the PKK military fighting against ISIS? Have you heard of the Israeli military? These are some exceptions to your cocksure insistence that women cannot be in the military.

      • Also dude, if you’re pissed about the government forcing you there are guys who resist what’s expected of them under the pretense of duty and patriotism. You have that choice as well. Just as much as women have their own choices.

      • David Kimess: Hey, don’t forget the Soviet Army in WW2 with its female soldiers.

        David, I am very well aware of your examples and was just waiting for someone like you to chime in. Oh, what’s the common thread uniting Yazidis, the Israeli Army and the Soviet Union in WW2? Every single one of them was engaged in an existential struggle, a do-or-die situation where everything is thrown into the struggle. Israel is a country of 8 million facing a hostile Arab world of 100s of millions. In Israel’s situation, it was found that mixed-gender units had higher casualty rates and women were soon removed from assault units.

        David, combat is about destroying the enemy as effectively as possible, not about social justice and providing women equal opportunities. There have been countless studies that show women aren’t as effective combat soldiers as men. Even now, in the current US military women are subject to easier standards for their annual physical test. If you were injured and under enemy fire, would you rather be “fireman carried” by the average woman or average man to safety?

        Do you really think those CNN “you go girls” articles about Yazidi women fighting reflects the true reality of the war going on in Syria/Iraq, where the enemy won’t hesitate to torture captured soldiers with methods such as burning people alive? The Syrian War is particularly nasty and brutish and trust me, men are doing the vast majority of the fighting, not a handful of media-genic Yazidi female warriors.

        David, I’m not someone “pissed” about the government forcing men to fight. I’m just making the observation that in every single society, men are ultimately expendable. Men are expected to die fighting for their tribe. If they get defeated, the women with a shrug will go off and join the the victor.

      • Davida Kimess: You know, in the final days of WW2 the Japanese starting equipping old people and little children with sharpened bamboo sticks to fight a possible US invasion of the main islands. And, the Germans raised Volkssturm battalions of little boys and old men to fight the allies. So ergo, little children and old people can be in the military!

  4. The gender issue is only one side of the coin though. I see it as being equally if not more a problem of the inability of Koreans of both genders to act like adults instead of children, of yielding to their elders every whim, and of their parents immutable adherence to the preservation of the social/family order of generations long past; in short it seems to me to be an age thing, that Korean people generally continue to behave as children around their parents well into adulthood and parents continue to treat their adult offspring as children. Thus traditional roles are maintained, the parents control proceedings that are unalterable and the kids get to play into perpetuity.

    • David Kimess: Hey, don’t forget the Soviet Army in WW2 with its female soldiers.

      David, I am very well aware of your examples and was just waiting for someone like you to chime in. Oh, what’s the common thread uniting Yazidis, the Israeli Army and the Soviet Union in WW2? Every single one of them was engaged in an existential struggle, a do-or-die situation where everything is thrown into the struggle. Israel is a country of 8 million facing a hostile Arab world of 100s of millions. In Israel’s situation, it was found that mixed-gender units had higher casualty rates and women were soon removed from assault units.

      David, combat is about destroying the enemy as effectively as possible, not about social justice and providing women equal opportunities. There have been countless studies that show women aren’t as effective combat soldiers as men. Even now, in the current US military women are subject to easier standards for their annual physical test. If you were injured and under enemy fire, would you rather be “fireman carried” by the average woman or average man to safety?

      Do you really think those CNN “you go girls” articles about Yazidi women fighting reflects the true reality of the war going on in Syria/Iraq, where the enemy won’t hesitate to torture captured soldiers with methods such as burning people alive? The Syrian War is particularly nasty and brutish and trust me, men are doing the vast majority of the fighting, not a handful of media-genic Yazidi female warriors.

      David, I’m not someone “pissed” about the government forcing men to fight. I’m just making the observation that in every single society, men are ultimately expendable. Men are expected to die fighting for their tribe. If they get defeated, the women with a shrug will go off and join the the victor.

    • I completely agree. This aspect of our culture is so toxic. But I suppose it is up to the younger generations to restructure this age hierarchical dynamic. Perhaps the young parents of Korea will not instill these same values upon their children. In fact, I can see it shaping out this way as many young Korean women today know their rights and expect equality from their young husbands.

      • Sounds like you’ve been sold a Bill of Goods, i.e., a whole bunch of radical feminist claptrap posing as “generational restructuring.” LoL. And as far as “rights” go, let’s lay out a ‘Bill of Rights,’ shall we?

        1) You have the right to forego ALL of the female-bonding rituals of your mother’s generation by NOT helping out in the kitchen if you don’t want to! Full stop.

        2) You have the right to forego all the gluttonous and indulgent food-centric customs associated with the holidays and spend your personal time at the gym or wherever you want instead.

        3) You should hiwever, remain silent if your complacency resulted in no laviciously and lovingly dishes being prepared let alone laid out for other family members;

        4) You have the right to order takeaway side dishes and other festive main dishes catered if you still want to have your cake and eat it to;

        5) You do not have the right to disrupt other people’s sense of family festivities over the holidays just b/c of your torpor, your lack of family ties, your family’s dysfunctions, or your need for unseemly attention.

  5. Kevin Were, I don’t think it’s one or the other though you do observe an issue that might be part of it. There’s no analysis that you can arrive at “in short”.

  6. Korean media is still in its toddler stages. They are very predictable in their narratives on an annual basis. The content and stories they choose to repeat are limited and narrow. Reporting what is familiar and well accepted is what editors, media executives and even independent journalists are trained to do and it feels right to Korean audiences. Presenting new content and narratives is anachronistic to seeing the world as it is supposed to be in Korea. There is no willingness to explore territory that is unknown, unpopular or common and populist. Toddlers are rarely let out of the house and only know what is inside the walls of their home.

  7. I feel for the Ajummas in this situation. Of course they are being treated unfairly by this patriarchal Korean culture. But is it right to tell them that they should not be in the kitchen and to fight their husbands? That requires them to take a drastic step against a deeply ingrained aspect of the culture. In other words, are we forcing them to see an uncomfortable injustice?

    At the end of the day, Umma just wants to see her family be happy. She is what holds the Korean family together.

    • “treated unfairly . . . by this patriarchal culture . . .” Meanwhile, the young men of Korea are conscripted by law to serve almost 2 years of their life in the military, freezing in the mountains and marching in mud while their female counterparts are busy drinking, shopping, clubbing and dating. Meanwhile, all the hard and dangerous labor in Korean industries such as shipbuilding and construction is carried out by men. Meanwhile, the salaryman are working 70 to 80 hours weeks at Samsung or even overseas to support their families. But if a Korean man loses his job and becomes chronically unemployed, he gets kicked out of the apartment and ostracized by both his wife and children and becomes a nobody living in a cardboard box in a subway.

      • You seem determined to place the blame on women yet they have not had much say in determining their positions in Korean society. How many women do you think live so lavishly as you describe? In the case of ajummas, most of them are not drinking and partying. Does your Korean mother fit that description.

        Is it not the deep-rooted culture of perpetuating the elite males of chaebols and corrupt government to rule Korean society that pits all those beneath them against each other? Working class men and women are being riled up and told to blame the other. Perhaps, in reality, they are all victims of the same attack.

      • J Kim: I’m not blaming anyone. The original article and your comment complains about Korean women being “treated unfairly” by a “patriarchal” culture because “boo hoo” they have to work a little harder making food for the holidays. Let’s talk about how “unfair” Korean women after they have to serve almost 2 years in the military and risk their life and limbs defending the country. I’ve been to Korea. Most of the young Korean women I’ve met seem to spend a lot of time in “studying” in universities, shopping, dating and otherwise enjoying their late teens and early 20s.

  8. Let’s try to think from a different perspective. I think that men are the ones actually losing if gender equality isnt achieved. How many judges and political figures there are in S. Korea that are women? Probably not many. How many korean women who could have been and should have been a judge, political figure, a chairman, and a leader in the society that get passed on because of gender inequality? Where are these women now? The burden of these passed on women would eventually become men’s burden.
    Let’s say that your wife is one of these women that get passed on because of gender inequality, she could’ve worked and earned more money than she is now, or maybe she doesnt even have a career and be a stay at home mom. Now, that difference is on the husband’s shoulder because he is expected to fulfill the needs of his family. Women are often seen as weak and fragile, then men, by default, would have to be the strong one, the protective one, and so on.

    • LOL did you know women outnumber men in the coveted justice profession (judges, prosecutors) by a large margin? Also men get discriminated against in traditoonal female professions like nursing and kintergarten and low level teaching positions. To make things worse, women wont marry a jobless man but a man will marry a jobless woman. Just some things to consider.

      • i dont think women outnumbered korean men in those professions. again, we’re talking about south korea, not the whole world. pretty sure there’s only a handful of chairwomen and other “leaders.” Im glad that any men would get upset over being discriminated on”low level teaching positions.” Imagine how upset women are when they’re being discriminated on higher level positions. And yes, most women would not want to marry jobless men cause then women would have to raise their kids AND work at the same time, while men, what are you doing? unless these men are willing to raise their children just as much as women would, i dont see a problem.

  9. If women are constantly being treated unjustly just because they are females, the one who’s actually losing more are the men.
    If women would be given the same opportunities as men, i think the society would be different. I think men would have more “freedom” to “refuse” certain roles that they would never have been able to deflect, ie as the breadwinner of the family. Women would be held responsible just as much as men in the society and family. With gender equality, one will only be seen as a person, not a female or a male.

    • “If women would be given the same opportunities as men, i think the society would be different.” Currently, in South Korea more women graduate from universities than men. Almost every single career is de jure open to women, including the Presidency of Korea.

      Korean society already is being changed. South Korea has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. There are many reasons but one big reason is that once a South Korean woman has a college degree, she thinks she’s too good to marry almost half the eligible men out there (i.e. men without degrees or in blue collar jobs).

      • i dont think women outnumbered korean men in those professions. again, we’re talking about south korea, not the whole world. pretty sure there’s only a handful of chairwomen and other “leaders.” Im glad that any men would get upset over being discriminated on”low level teaching positions.” Imagine how upset women are when they’re being discriminated on higher level positions. And yes, most women would not want to marry jobless men cause then women would have to raise their kids AND work at the same time, while men, what are you doing? unless these men are willing to raise their children just as much as women would, i dont see a problem.

      • im glad to see that it is changing. but it is de facto that men are still on the top tier in terms of being as board directors and having seats in parliament. http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21700461-conservative-workplaces-are-holding-south-korean-women-back-careers-and-carers

        with the education that we have now and the society in S. Korea, i wouldnt want to have kids too if i were to be born in S. Korea. many would argue why “slave away” being married to a patriarchal society where she’s constantly being demanded to cook, clean, prepare for the holidays, and whatnot -without men’s help at that- when one has a degree? she could have done and be so much more than just a cook, a cleaner, a wife, a mother, and a daughter in law. it’s the point of view of many women from the 21st century. it is sad to see korean mothers do what they did on holidays. now why would one wanna raise a daughter just to be treated the same given now they have better education and more opportunities than back in the days? hence the low birth rate.

        “a South Korean woman has a college degree, she thinks she’s too good to marry almost half the eligible men out there (i.e. men without degrees or in blue collar jobs).” would you marry someone that does not have at least an ounce of intelligence in her? i wouldnt marry someone who couldnt hold a conversation with a certain level of intelligence. there needs to be a common ground for one to consider marriage. same goes with men. anyone, regardless of men and women, would choose the better option if being presented one.

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